In the village of Lorai, I ruminated on the purpose of our visit to western Gujarat over delectable dhabeli, a Kutch delicacy, which is a salsa-like potpourri of fried peanuts and crackling crisp sev. It was a fitting metaphor for our journey, which in essence was a potpourri of culture, landscapes, vegetation and wildlife.
“They are Jats,” responded our guide Chetan to my question, “Are they Maldharis?”
We were driving towards the salt-encrusted White Rann with the Super Blue Blood Moon just a few hours from rising in the east, when we chanced upon herders driving a column of camels across the road. The camels seemed in no hurry, which gave us an opportunity to observe the beasts as well as their herders in their bright salwar-kameezes that broke the monotony of the earthen hues around us.
We moved, with Banni East to our right and Banni West to our left. Further ahead our journey was interrupted again, this time by a herd of Kutchi buffaloes.
“Are they Jats?” I asked Chetan, referring to the herders. “They are Mussalmans,” was his response.
The Mussalmans, too, wore vivid salwar-kameezes of pink, magenta and cyan. The buffaloes walked close to my car window and I got a good glimpse of their horns. Unlike the Murrah or the water buffaloes found in the east and south, the Kutchi/Banni buffaloes have inward-curving horns, in the shape of ammonite fossils. Further ahead on our drive, we saw another herd of buffaloes being driven across the road. I popped my question to Chetan, who replied, “Rabaris.”
It was later that I was made to understand that the term Maldhari refers not just to a single community but people who follow the occupation of rearing cattle for commerce. Mal refers to livestock and dhari essentially means to possess. How the pastoral tribes settled in Kutch is backed by many legends and theories but why they came was clear. Banni held a cornucopia for beings under, on, and above terra firma.
Seasonal vagaries turn Banni from grassland to island to wetland and back to grassland as the sun crawls from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn and back again. From being flooded with water to turning into a parched dust bowl, Banni is a story of seasonal regeneration — one that offers both retreat and refuge to beings resident and transient, shaken only by the tectonic forces of the plates under the crust.
It was in a flash, the pleasant thoughts of the cycles of creation and regeneration disappeared and the tremor that caused it was not the one sub-surface. It was a droning that grew more intense as we approached Tent City – the temporary encampment erected, near the White Rann for the Rann Utsav (Festival of the Rann).
Navigating the traffic of motorised vehicles, camel carts and horse carts, we arrived at the parking lot of the White Rann. Greater Short-toed Larks and Crested Larks dove down and skittered at the cusp of sand and salt. We had entered the White Rann.
Blemishes started to show on the immaculate White Rann as we grew closer. Walking on the salt-fields gave the wobbly sensation of walking on loose snow at some places, and the stability of packed ice at others. Both salt and snow are crystalline, so the similarity didn’t really come as a surprise.
However, it was not just the White Rann that I would remember from my trip to Kutch in early 2018. The region unravelled a plethora of experiences and visual treats I brought back with me (to be relived in this series).
In the coming weeks I’ll take you back to to the receding winter Banni grasslands as I recollect my seven most memorable experiences in Kutch:
Going “Waku-Waku” with the Sandgrouse
Up close with the raptors of Banni
A morning hike up Fot Mahadev for the elusive White Naped Tit
Spying on the rare Desert Cat out to get its supper
Reading the sea’s writings on Mandvi beach
Watching the Stoliczka’s Bushchat “puff and roll”
Looking back, the Kutch experience was more like the traditional Indian food platter or thali, offering an assortment of delectables. Ones that leave a lasting pleasant taste and get you coming back for more.
More reminiscences from Kutch in the weeks to come.